illustrated portrait of English poet Emily Dickinson

Emily Dickinson

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How did Emily Dickinson's life influence her work, particularly in one poem?

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Firstly, I can recommend two excellent biographies of Dickinson to help you: The Life of Emily Dickinson by Richard B. Sewall, which is the seminal biography of Dickinson, and My Wars Are Laid Away in Books by Alfred Habegger, which is the most recent biography.  

Gardening and the study of botany were important interests of Dickinson's. She loved flowers, particularly those which produced a fragrance (she cared less for orchids due to their lack of aroma), and spent a lot of time caring for flowers in the greenhouse at her family home in Amherst, Massachusetts. Many of her poems are about flowers, though, in some verses, she may be using flowers as a metaphor to explore other ideas. Please consider the following poems as examples: "I hide myself within a flower," "The Lilac is an Ancient Shrub," and "Pink—small—and punctual—." The last of these is said to have sexual connotations, though it is also about a perennial flower. 

For more information on how gardening and botany affected Dickinson's work, as well as more information about the flowers for which she cared, consult The Gardens of Emily Dickinson by Judith Farr and Louise Carter.

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Discuss the life of Emily Dickinson (one aspect of her life, such as her family, her education, religion, or her personal relationships) and how it affected her work (discuss at least one poem in detail).

Emily Dickinson lived an introverted life, rarely venturing from her Amherst, Massachusetts home, save for a year at Mount Holyoke Female Seminary and an eight-month stay in Cambridge for treatment of an eye affliction.

Though she herself was an introvert, Emily Dickinson lived among family members who had careers that required a notable public presence. Her grandfather, a lawyer, founded Amherst College, and her father, too, was a lawyer who practiced in Amherst. Moreover, Emily Dickinson's father was the treasurer of Amherst College for nearly forty years and served in the Massachusetts state legislature and also Congress. He sat on many boards and was prominent in many reform movements.

Emily Dickinson's brother, Austin, followed in his father's and grandfather's footsteps and also practiced law in Amherst and had a busy career in civic affairs.

In their close-knit family, Emily Dickinson had ample opportunity to observe the demands of community prominence and careers in public service. As a recluse who rarely strayed far from her house, her contemplation of the lives of her grandfather, father, and brother seems clear in this poem:

I’m Nobody! Who are you?

Are you – Nobody – too?

Then there’s a pair of us!

Don’t tell! they’d advertise – you know!

How dreary – to be – Somebody!

How public – like a Frog –

To tell one’s name – the livelong June –

To an admiring Bog!

The poem is an imagined conversation with an introverted person like herself, one who relishes the anonymity of a life lives away from the public eye. The speaker in the poem has no desire to have a public persona, judging such an existence as "dreary" like a frog croaking to the denizens of its swamp. The speaker takes amusement in finding someone like herself with whom to share her witty analogy.

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